Pep Guardiola delivered it as a compliment to a striker proving himself one of the game’s premier finishers, but Mauricio Pochettino deemed it disrespectful towards Tottenham.
When the Manchester City manager chose to describe the north Londoners as the “Harry Kane team”, he felt he was saluting the England international’s exceptional goalscoring form, but the Argentine was offended and his irritation was understandable.
Spurs 8/1 to beat Liverpool 2-1
Spurs are not all about the 24-year-old; they are progressive, well-coached, uncharitable in defence, possess incredible balance, have a clear identity, can count on the creativity of Christian Eriksen, are the envy of many for having Dele Alli and the list goes on…
But there is no denying that they are heavily reliant on Kane – he is responsible for 50 per cent of his side’s combined goals this term in the Premier League and Champions League.
As the forward prepares to counter the trend of failing to find the net in his top-flight appearances at home against Liverpool, plenty will be wondering if Sunday’s opponents would be better off if they had him or another classic No.9 – like Romelu Lukaku – up front, rather than Roberto Firmino.
Jurgen Klopp certainly won’t be among those. The Merseysiders have purposefully moved away from being overly dependent on one player in attack, having learnt from leaning too much on Daniel Sturridge in the past, only to look completely defunct in his absences through injury.
There is more collective responsibility in front of the sticks for Liverpool, domestically and on the continent: Mohamed Salah has contributed 30% of their goals, Firmino 22%, Philippe Coutinho 17%, with Sadio Mane on 13%.
Salah 13/8 to score v Spurs
Guardiola couldn’t refer to the Reds by singling out a player and, in fact, his assessment of them has been glowing: “They attack the back four with so many players, from almost anywhere on the pitch. They have an intensity with the ball and without the ball, and it is not easy to do that. I don’t think there is another team in the world attacking in this way with so many players capable of launching moves in an instant.”
Even following City’s 5-0 victory in September, aided by Mane’s 37th-minute red card at the Etihad, the Spaniard admitted: “At 11 v 11, the game was equal. They attacked a lot in the channels with runs in behind. They are so fast with Mane and Salah. They have top, top players and, with Roberto Firmino and his quality, they created problems.”
Liverpool are able to swarm and overwhelm opponents precisely because of their forward options – they are fluid, complement each other and are proactive. They make things happen rather than wait for moments to affect the game.
With all the talk of the club needing a classic No.9, it has perhaps evaded the memory that they attempted to go the traditional route in recent years with no great success.
Andy Carroll arrived in January 2011 for £35 million – a club-record fee that was only surpassed with the purchase of Salah this summer – touted as England’s next great centre-forward.
Rickie Lambert joined from Southampton three years ago on the back of a fine 2013-14 campaign in which only Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney had matched him in recording double figures for both goals and assists.
Mario Balotelli was signed in the same window and, while his previous behavioural problems may have marked him out as a risk, he had the very traits many external voices felt Liverpool needed to deal with deep defences.
Then, in July 2015, Brendan Rodgers succumbed to ‘Plan B’ pressures and veered from his blueprint to make Christian Benteke the main man at Anfield in a squad that was stylistically at odds with the Belgian’s strengths.
None of these additions – all different but essentially more classical candidates to lead the line – worked because they altered the very essence of the fluent, fast, assertive football the club subscribes to and their core players are geared for.
“We are not a team that can play with a striker who scores a goal but is not involved in the game for the other 89 minutes,” Klopp said of Benteke, now at Crystal Palace, after he struck the winner against Leicester in December 2016. “We need the striker for the other options, too – to work for the other minutes.”
That summary is exactly why Firmino – who joined Liverpool 16 days before Benteke as a compromise so the transfer committee and manager could get their respective priority targets – is so difficult to usurp as the reference point for the club’s attack.
He is always an option, is primed to steal possession, creates space effortlessly and is cerebral.
“With Roberto Firmino, people say he does not score enough,” a bewildered Klopp told Goal in pre-season. “What?! He is the best player without scoring with how well he reads the game for the benefit of others. Outstanding!”
Those who choose to view the Brazil international solely through the goals column misunderstand his role and Liverpool’s template. He is their “important player, connecting player, finisher, fighter and first defender.”
Firmino has netted six goals for Liverpool this season, with three assists. In the top flight and Champions League, he has carved out 22 chances, had 482 touches, made 166 final-third passes and contributed 11 tackles – bar successful strikes, he outperforms Kane, Lukaku and Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata at everything else.
His job is not just to find the back of the net, but to ensure those around him do too. He is not just offensive; he has to be obstructive from the front.
Prior to Tuesday’s 7-0 annihilation of Maribor, the discussion around Liverpool requiring a 25-goal striker was amplified as they created much but converted little during a run of one victory in eight games.
Robbie Fowler, who netted 183 for the Anfield side to put him sixth in their all-time most prolific list, labelled such a narrative “fashionable”.
He felt the theme had swung from a vulnerable defence to the decision not to sign a certified scoring machine purely based on results rather than performances and the fact that his former club were doing everything but apply the finishing touch to their otherwise positive play.
Forwards go through these periods – as Kane himself has experienced in the month of August where 13 league appearances and 44 shots have rendered zero goals – so Fowler was convinced “it will definitely turn” and “pretty soon, I think we’ll be talking about the good things Liverpool are doing and how great they are going forward as opposed to ‘oh, they’ve created so much again without scoring enough.’”
The attacking rebirth arrived at Maribor and will need to continue against Tottenham and beyond. Of the last 25 goals scored in league games between Liverpool and Spurs, 21 have come from the Reds.
You don’t need a traditional centre-forward to be exceptional in attack, you need the right fit: Kane and Lukaku are quintessential for their respective clubs but Firmino is too.